Confessions of a Paperboy

I was ten when we visited my grandmother’s small farm in southern Missouri. I’m an early riser, so Grandma took me out at dawn and shared some lessons she might have called “milking the cow.” In her case, it involved a cow, but the lessons have shaped me anyway. Soon after, I landed a suburban preteen’s dream job, delivering newspapers in my neighborhood. I’ve delivered newspapers most mornings since. For more than half my life, I’ve been a paperboy.

Tomorrow is International Newspaper Carrier Day. You might notice a full page ad tomorrow with every Register-Guard newspaper carrier listed in teeny tiny type. This small army of predawn sentries give thousands of Lane County residents their first human-to-human acknowledgement of each day.

If the newspaper is late or wet or missing or errant, it bodes ill for the day. If the newspaper carrier doesn’t care, how much less might be expected from commuters and coworkers and customers? But when it all goes right, it’s like magic, as if each subscriber conjured his or her own newspaper onto their porch to start their day.

Grandma’s first lesson was “it’s not about you.” She milked the cow the same way each morning. Same time, same house coat, same classical music, same pre-warmed hands. A comfortable cow gives more milk. I try to think about the 171 newspaper-reading households on my route. If all those people start their day with an affirmation of consistency, they’ll be able to do more of whatever they have set out to do. They’ll give more milk.

Grandma understood the benefit of sameness was mutual. Mornings are easy to keep uninterrupted, and I’ve made mine like Grandma’s. Warm your hands, do a little work, sip something steaming, consider the day ahead, and savor what may be your only moments of waking calm.

When I tried to do her chore and failed, Grandma gently corrected me. She could see I was trying — tugging — too hard. Her advice: “Don’t think. Just do.” Nike was nothing more than mythological trivia in 1967, but Grandma’s words mean more to me all the time. I do a lot of thinking every day, so I’ve set aside time each morning when thinking is optional.

I’ve modified Grandma’s advice just a tad. Tai Chi practitioners call it “thinking without thinking” — allowing the body to think without the mind being in charge. My hand will tell my head when I’ve delivered a newspaper in the wrong spot. It won’t feel right. Athletes call it “being in the zone.” I tried jogging in college, but I couldn’t pace myself. So I deliver newspapers instead.

While my body does the thinking, my mind can do something else altogether. Untethered, the mind can reach fantastic places. Again, others speak to it more eloquently, but newspaper delivery allows me to practice some sort of meditation-lite. Maybe I sleep more deeply and wake more fully because I have this in-between state of motor route matins.

It’s not the simplicity of the rote task that frees my mind, but the complexity. One hundred and seventy one stops, dozens of turns, five gears, three radio stations, deer and raccoons sharing the road, folding papers as I go, steering with my knees. Thousands of prescribed motions, strung together in strict sequence. My fleece jacket’s left shoulder is worn to the nub where the seatbelt rubs against each movement.

Every morning I attempt perfection, and if I finish with no extra papers, I’ve probably attained it. All in all, it’s a good way to start a day — for me and 318 other carriers blanketing Lane County every morning. Some of the names on that list tomorrow may surprise you.

Civic leader and political mentor Jim Klonoski died at 83 earlier this year, but he delivered newspapers every morning for twenty years with his children as they grew. They learned from him that good honest work can serve as a solid foundation for the day ahead. String together enough of those days and you have a solid foundation for your life ahead. His children are growing to prove him right.

They won’t call that lesson “milking the cow.” I wonder what they’ll call it instead.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has delivered Route #0223 between Laurelwood Golf Course and Hendricks Park since 1997. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here at www.dksez.com. His grown son Dylan also delivers a Register-Guard route every morning.